Building beds with bricks

The mulch-generating polyculture for Mortal Tree’s PASSIVE garden system is going well. It’s the bed in Foundation for a future I am establishing with bricks.*

The intent for this bed, per A bit blunt method, was to shift the rocks every couple of months to kill off the grass underneath. This worked pretty well for most of the bed. I shifted the bricks in July and made a final small shift about a week ago. Above is the freshly shifted “mulch” around an amorpha.

I also tried covering a small part with grass mulch in May last year, and this took care of any weeds growing through the cracks. Below is the planting now. Like most fun times, there is a mess to clean up afterwards. This bed had a lot of fun last year. What you see is actually mulch I applied, the healthy comfrey, and some amorpha interplanted. I plucked out the little bits of green quackgrass, and look forward to some very lush, beautiful growth here come summer.

I plucked out the quackgrass when I shifted the rocks. Because they block sun and moisture loss, the rocks encourage the quackgrass to grow shallow, allowing me to just pick them up rather than pulling them. What roots did grow deeply are easily pulled because the soil is so soft under the bricks.

 


This soil conditioning is one if the main perks of using rocks. The soil life is everywhere, with centipedes, worms, spiders -even at this cold season. Soil between the bricks which heaved from the freezing over winter is unbelievably friable. It looks like it has been tilled.

Considering how low this soil is in organic matter, with a clay-coal base, with no amendments like sand or ever even being tilled before, I am very excited to already have such results. The moisture and soil life have brought it so far because I have created the right habitat, covering the soil. The organic matter is starting to accumulate.

Above are some amorpha leaves dropped last fall, which likely have brought in nitrogen the system formerly did not have. The plants were already beginning to nodulate in their pots when I planted them last year. If you would like to learn more about how I ensure they make nitrogen and get off to a good start, I have some notes here on Growing amorpha.

I also harvested some of the comfrey leaves last year, which I left around the plants I harvested from. This is breaking down into gorgeous soil, bringing in carbon the system did not formerly have.

Pictured is some broken down comfrey from a larger patch in the food forest. This new patch should be producing similar soil in the near future. It’s already well on its way.

 

*This could have been done with some large piece of canvas or the like, or a large piece of plywood. One of my clients decided to try clear plastic just to block water, which was still effective at removing the plants underneath.

Mastering the Growing Edge

A while back, I launched a series on this blog, post by post unfurling ten plants that cover ground. Like vibrant streaks of color, new concepts and uses popped into these posts, until the original idea was far outgrown.

The series blossomed earlier last week into Mastering the Growing Edge. You could call it a companion to PASSIVE Gardening; although the main focus in MtGE is food forests and perennial vegetables. It ties the concepts of bed building, mulch management, ground covers, and bed builders into a coherent whole.

I was able to once again work with Kindle Direct Publishing to make the digital copy free for your download today, Friday (Feb 3), and Saturday (Feb 4).

If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry; almost any device that displays this post can display a Kindle book by simply downloading the free Kindle app here.

I hope to hear your feedback and see the results that follow your new-found knowledge. Like a bud coaxed into bloom, this book is meant to bring the plants of a garden to full luster of growth through healthy pairings. The plants manage a lot of the growth, leaving you more time to smell the roses.

The book cover below is linked to the digital and softcover book’s page -just click.

Ground cover infographic

Sunchokes is number ten in the Top 10 ground covers for food forests series I started a while ago. To help put everything into perspective, I made an infographic.

Scaled Infographic

The ground cover branch on the visual archive has links to all the original posts if you would like to find out more.

In general, the layout from right to left are ground covers that do well in established beds, to plants that simply wipe out other plants, and are excellent for bed building.

If you’re wondering how to share this on your own social media pages, try the share buttons below the post. I have most social platforms available for sharing.

I’m using the the term “dynamic mulch” to describe the ground covers, because ground cover has a rather flat connotation. Most gardeners think of them as useless plants that do nothing better than excessively clog the soil surface. They have much more potential.

I’m suggesting these plants as tools, not just for blocking weeds, but actively removing weeds, making use of otherwise useless plants through careful combinations, getting food from ground cover, improving the quality of the soil, and feeding other plants through their  well calculated use. With the correct use, resulting from a more dynamic comprehension of plants, we are suddenly on the brink of an entirely new level of sustainable, productive, passive agriculture and gardening.

The infographic, and the Top 10 series are part of a bigger surprise to which some of you closely following me have probably caught on. It should be ready before the end of the month. My apologies for making you wait, but I assure you, it will be worth it.

Update: It’s launched! Mastering the Growing Edge is live if you want to check it out. 

 

Practicality -Edible Dahlias part 3

The model in my mind of an edible dahlia seeds itself abundantly, and grows tenaciously; tubers just spontaneously generate over summer for fall harvest; the tubers you don’t care to dig freeze, so never become a perennial problem. I really do think this is a realistic vision, but it might take a little species trials to find the right one.


Cultivariable has done some excellent work gathering a collection of dahlias they consider edible, and are harvesting the seed for further selection. I read through an excerpt of his very informative book on his website which I subsequently grabbed a copy of (link below if you’d like to to check it out. It covers far more than dahlias) but saw no mention of self seeding.

He is already sold out of this year’s available tuber and seed stock anyway, so I looked deeper.

The species he raises are Dahlia pinnata and coccinea. Pinnata is the species most often cited as edible, and actually grows wild in the lower southeast US according to the USDA Plant Database -Mississippi and North Carolina in particular.

This was helpful when looking at my next best option -“Bishop’s Children” mix. I’d seen it many times in seed catalogs because it’s commonly grown as an annual from seed. It’s the progeny of “Bishop of Llandaff” -hence the name, and is believed to be cross between pinnata and coccinea.

This background information seems to originate from a single article profusely circulated and cited in Wikipedia articles. But the characteristics I see in pictures agree with the story. I think it’s worth believing. The seed is widely available so why not try them anyway?

The plan is to get the seed and sow some for carefully potting up and transplanting, the rest just spread around in opportune patches in the food forest to see how easily they take. Assuming they form plenty of tubers (most dahlias are daylength sensitive, some forming only small, and very few, tubers before frost) and assuming they taste good, they may become a prominent citizen of Mortal Tree, and perhaps find their way into my client’s gardens as delicious, productive little gem mines.


Above: The same heirloom dahlia in the opening photo, now harvested, with tuber harvest laid on the aerial parts which are now mulch.

The book I mentioned: The Cultivariable Growing Guide: Sixteen Rare Vegetables for the Pacific Northwest

To cook a dahlia -Edible dahlias part 2

Preparations of dahlia tubers I saw in magazines or online were anything but exciting. Most I would avoid if it was any other root in a similar recipe -various low fat mayonnaise covered salads. There were also profuse warnings about the variance in dahlias flavor from variety to variety, and basic edibility, so be cautious. I see far more potential for these little gem mines.

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The heirloom dahlia I raised for tubers.

When harvesting the dahlia flowers, there is a lovely cucumber-like smell, when digging the roots, the most delicate, lightly sweet, almost celestial carrot sensation. This was the initial characteristic that drew me into the idea of eating them.

On a bright November day, the coveted patches of dahlias now seas of writhing black slime from the frosts, the time had come to bring the precious tubers to light. The big dig took the whole morning just to unearth, let alone fuss over, the tubers. I unearthed mine in the food forest as an afterthought.

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I just tossed these tubers in one of the flowerbeds by the house to freeze in the coming cold. I had read they develop more sugars after long, cool storage. Not interested in waiting that long, I’d let the freezing cold speed things up.

Now in December, I retrieved the frozen tubers and let them thaw before peeling, and throwing them halved into boiling water.

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This is the method I’ve used for sunchokes (Helianthis tuberosum) per the cookbook recommendations I’ve found. It works, although the simple preparation of boiling doesn’t break down the inulin they contain, which on my digestion is unpleasant. Dahlias are also said to contain inulin, so I wondered if I shouldn’t try something more drastic like the long bakes over hot coals used by Native American tribes to break down sunchoke inulin. To have more accurate comparison, I decided to just go with the sunchoke preparation I was familiar with.

Usually I add some lemon juice to the sun chokes water, so did the same for these dahlias -just a tablespoon worth in about a quart of water. This keeps sunchokes from turning blackish brown from their high iron content, which I wasn’t sure these dahlias had. They were already a light tan. But I did it anyway. It adds some flavor.

After five minutes, I pulled a smaller piece out and tasted. The raw piece I tasted before cooking had the exquisite light carrot flavor I so love, but was mealy, had a bitter element, and a hollow, though dusty center flavor that I can only describe as dirt.

Cooked, it was a little nicer in terms of texture -more crunchy. But that dirt flavor was still rumbling at its base.

After some figuring, I sliced the tubers into julienne, and sautéd them in butter. I sprinkled them with allspice, some hickory smoked salt, and just a dash of cayenne. When some nice golden brown patches appeared on their edges, I removed them, tasted, and they were suddenly very good.

The salt was pleasantly prominent. The richness of the hickory filled in the dirty core flavor, transforming it to a much more pleasant earthiness. The allspice added a beautiful depth and complexity to the carrot flavor.

I knew just what would cinch it though, so poured some maple syrup into the still hot pan, tossed in a couple of raw, unsweetened cacao chips, a few drops of vanilla tincture, and stirred.

The heat wasn’t enough to melt the cacao, but enough to infuse the syrup with its flavor. Lightly poured over the rich, salty, carroty tubers, it transformed them from inedible hunks of dirt I spit out between bites, to worthy of consuming the plate.

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I wouldn’t exactly call this preparation a dessert. Even with the sauce, it could still work as a side dish to a main meal because, among all the complexity, the sweetness didn’t stand out much. Others who tasted thought it was the natural sweetness of the dahlias.

The one drawback was its texture, which was still a little spongy. I think further sautéing at a lower heat until fully crisp would help reduce this.

I think it would also improve the digestibility. Compared to sunchokes, these were much better on my digestion, even if a bit heavy. I might try baking dahlias for a long time (I’ve seen suggestions of doing this in a clay pot) and see if they improve, both in digestibility and flavor. The long heat that breaks down the inulin is also supposed to make sweet flavors more prominent.

Overall I like them, and think there is great potential for them as a highly sought delicacy. I just need to figure out how to more efficiently grow them.

Drawn in -Edible dahlias part 1

Among all the precious gems of the world, the most breathtaking are flowers. In contrast to the near indestructible gems of the earth (“Diamonds are forever”) flowers often see new life and death with the rising and setting sun, but they are seldom less capable of enrapturing the human heart.


In further contrast to scarce gems of the earth, flowers quite literally grow on trees, and, in the case of dahlias, from tubers. A limitess fountain of some of the worlds most bedazzling explosions of color, wrapped in the most drab, affordable, little bundles of dirt, what woman wouldn’t want a diamond mine in the palm of her hand? Similarly, what woman would not want a dahlia tuber?
All it takes is a bite from ‘the bug’ to initiate the disease. But once contracted, Dahlia Fever is hardly discernable from the symptoms of diamonds, gold, pearls. The difference (and danger) is you can fit far more purchases on your credit card, and need the space and skills to grow the annual magnum opus of flowers.


Currently I am associated with two infected specimen -my mother and neighbor – and one man who has for decades carried on his late mother’s heirloom dahlia. He isn’t enthralled with the flowers, he raises them for the sake of his mother’s memory -the flower literally meant that much to her -and she that much to him. Watching my mother and my neighbor, it’s not hard to imagine why.

Whether the early hours of the morning, or the late hours of the night, they’ll be in their patches with flashlights, peering into the opening buds for fear they will blast open behind their backs. Every one is scrutinized for its lineage, and worth. Between the two of them, there are about eighty clumps of tubers, and fifty varieties, which must be dug annually (dahlias cannot freeze, so must be dug up and stored indoors in our climate.). Both the fall digging, and the spring replanting, and later in the summer the other nuances of dahlia care, including arranging all those gems of flowers for sale, is done by yours truly. 

As they ran off to admire their pile of pretty posies, I read of the more practical aspects of the plant. I found out dahlias come from the mountainous, volcanic soils of South America. They were originally brought to the old world as an exotic edible. The frenzy for flowers came later. 

So my question is, as I’m watching the two women oggling over the yearly harvest of tubers -dahlias, dahlias everywhere -are they any good to eat?

I wouldn’t dare touch one of the little diamond mines for fear of my life. But the one heirloom dahlia kept by the elderly man I mentioned, he has shared with us. It is just short of indestructible. It would grow on concrete if you let it, and multiplies like crazy, unlike many of the other more expensive, rare, and “precious” specimens. In their careful inspection of varieties, the two women will regularly toss these abundant survivors over their backs to the reject pile, so I grabbed a couple to plant in the food forest, and grow on for eating. 

I grew it in a new bed. This ensured it would have the fertility necessary to make good tubers. I did nothing with it otherwise. I didn’t even pick the flowers off, despite my mothers disapproval. A branch broke off in a windstorm, but otherwise, it had all the energy it could get to make more tubers. 

Got figs?

Two months after air layering the fig tree, I severed the cuttings from their parent branches.

I knew at least one was ready because I could peek under the tape wrapped around the bottles and see a mass of white roots.


I watered the bottles when they felt light. Otherwise, I just left them to do their thing. 

Not a single root grew from the inner wood. They all grew from the bark above the cut. In this case, I should have placed the bottles higher on the branches, covering more bark, giving opportunity for more roots. I still got rootings from two of the three branches. The one below did not root.


The leaf growth on all three was extremely lush. I filled the bottles with some lovely leaf mold though, so not too surprising.

The roots were also very soft and not well attached to the branch. Many of them were damaged when prying off the hard bottle opening. Next time, I will remove this to start, and just use the softer plastic to hold the soil against the branch, or maybe skip the bottle and wrap it with cloth or a plastic bag. I have seen tin foil used.

Loss of roots and leaves removed.
I removed the lush leaves since there was now little root to sustain them. That was hard. Then I potted all three up, even though the one hadn’t produced roots (I figured it might still root), and put them in the shade under a potting bench. 

Two weeks later, they have leafed out and the two that had rooted are ready to plant. Still waiting on the third.

As an experiment, I also took some regular cuttings off the same fig, placed in water for a while, then put into moist soil. They have also leafed out; but after four months there is still not a rooting I can find from five cuttings.

Several years ago I started the parent fig by leaving a dormant cutting in water in a sunny window until roots appeared. It was the one of six that rooted. 

It seems air layering is the superior method for propagating figs. Let me know if you try it -on figs, or anything else.